This Central African country, deeply divided by a labyrinth of ethnic and religious rivalry and 14 years of civil war, has managed a few halting steps toward peace with a newly formed but faction-riven coalition government.

A brittle day-to-day peace, occasionally shattered by gunfights at night, hangs over Ndjamena, seat of the 11-faction administration that has barely been able to govern since its formation in November.

The conflicts that daily rend Chad -- Moslem against Moslem and Moslem against the southern blacks -- reflect the underlying tensions that stretch across the continent along the southern fringe of the Sahara where the desert meets tropical Africa.

Though nine countries, from Sudan to Mauritania, Arabs and Afro-Arab Moslems who dominate the northern portion of the belt have lived for generations in conflict and tenuous coexistence with blacks, both Christians and believers in traditional African religions such as animism, of the southern forest belt.

Chad's land area, twice the size of Texas but half of it desert, provides a scant subsistence for its population. The little development that has occured since independence was funneled to the south. Cotton grown in the south provides 80 percent of Chad's exports but France has provided most of the country's $60 million annual budget.

An American oil company, Continental, has discovered some minor oil fields around Lake Chad north of here and an as yet undetermined amount of oil in the south.

Fighting broke out in Chad, a poor, little-known landlocked country, in the mid-1960s after France, in 1960, turned power over to a southern black-dominated government. The rebellion began among Moslem groups in the east and spread north.

"The southerners long abused the northern [Moslems] and kept them out of a share of power after independence," said a knowledgeable African diplomat. The southerners "had a strong desire for retribution" for the past oppression they had suffered under the Moslems, he said.

The precolonial boundaries of Chad contained several highly centralized Islamic Arab and Afro-Arab kingdoms dating back more than a thousand years. The leaders of these kingdoms sanctioned slave raids and roundups in the tropical forest belt, among the non-Islamic southern blacks, until early in this century.

After the French completed the conquest of Chad, the southern blacks welcomed them as protectors. A minority converted to Christianity and entered mission schools. The Moslems remained aloof from contact with the French and Western education. They lived steeped in their centuries-old traditions, conventions that have also kept the present-day descendants of the old Islamic kingdoms divided among themselves.

Consequently, by independence, the blacks made up as much as 90 percent of the government and civil bureaucracy in a country where at least half of the 4 million population is Moslem.

The southerners, with military and economic assistance from France, were able to hold onto power until last February when a short-lived coalition between the government and one Moslem faction degenerated into fighting here. The French who maintain a 1,200-man peacekeeping force in the city, remained neutral and, with other Moslem factions joining in the fighting, the southerners were swept from power.

But before they retreated to their stronghold in the south, the southern army massacred thousands of Moslem civilians in Ndjamena. After capturing the city, the northerners retaliated, killing equal numbers of southerners. More than 100,000 southerners fled south, dropping the population of the city to about 100,000 and leaving the civil bureaucracy unstaffed.

Thousands of Moslem traders in the south also were killed.

After a half-year with no government, the southerners and 10 Moslem factions met in Lagos, Nigeria, in August and after squabbling, put together a shaky coalition government on Nov. 12.

Chad's interim president, Goukouni Oueddei, in his late 30s, a modest but tough guerrilla leader from the northern desert.

Goukouni has a reputation as a conciliator, and knowledgeable observers give him the best chance of holding the government together until elections, still unscheduled, are held to form a permanent government. Goukouni leads a 7,000-man guerrilla group called the Popular Front Armed Forces, made up mainly of his Toubou desert nomads.

Vice President Wadal Abelkader Kamogue, 40, is a well-educated southerner and self-promoted colonel whocommands the still intact 6,000-manan southerner army called the Chadian Armed Forces, now based in the southwest. Leader of the southern blacks, the self-confident Kamougue has managed to wrangle for his faction 10 out of the 22 ministrial posts in the transitional government.

Defense Minister Hissene Habre, 37, shrewd, aggressive and ambitious. He and Kamougue are implacable enemies as both led forces that committed the massacres of southerners and Moslems a year ago. Habre, a French-educated Moslem lawyer, has a 5,000-member guerrilla group called the Armed Forces of the North. It is based among his Anakaza people in the northeast and fought a fourth Moslem faction recently, successfully expanding its control in eastern Chad.

Interior Minister Mahamat Abba Seid, 50, a Moslem fundamentalist, commands the approximately 6,500 guerrillas of a loose three-party group called the Communal Armed Forces, based among the decendants of the old southeastern Islamic kingdoms of Ouadai and Baguirmi. Seid's forces lost a battle with Habre's and Seid has made a hasty military alliance with President Goukouni in an effort to isolate Habre.

The agreement in Lagos also provides for a three-country African peace-keeping force from Guinea, Benin and Congo to replace the French soldiers. The first contingent, 400 Congolese soldiers, arrived here on Algerian planes in mid-January. The Chadian factions have agreed to withdraw their forces from the capital by early February.

"Chad is like Sudan," said a diplomat from Sudan, where an almost two-decade civil war "between the Afro-Arab culture of the north and the traditional African culture of the south" ended in 1972.

"We solved the problem by granting autonomy to the south," he said.

In an interview, Interior Minister Seid said the Sudanese example will not be followed here.

"It's true that the present government has not been able to achieve much," he said, "because it's weak, because it's composed of too many factions" with seemingly unresolvable differences.

But that will not be a basis for granting autonomy to any region, particularly the economically essential south.

"We are against all forms of federation," he said. "Chad is a whole and we intend to fight any idea of partition."